Wednesday, April 21, 2010

The Church Abused: Passive Aggression

Last week I posted about the abuses of the Church which are legion over the centuries in all denominations and in all religious institutions.

The Church is also the most abused institution I know. I admit it’s the one I know best but.......

It is accused of power and control issues, but there are many ways in which the “faithful” visit their own power and control issues on the church. Aggressive use of power, real or imagined, is met with passive aggression: the art of doing something that will disrupt, a little or a lot, someone else’s life—and look innocent. Believe me, it’s aggression hidden and requiring far more cunning.

Which comes first aggression or passive aggression isn’t knowable and doesn’t matter. I often ask couples how they each exercise control over the other and then how they get even. The innocent one looks stunned and the one who thinks him or herself to be guilty looks relieved.
Their relationship is stuck in aggression, outright and hidden. The innocent are not so innocent.

Let me count the ways:

Always there for me for ever and ever amen: There is an assumption that the church should be or is at your service without consideration that the church and its clergy and staff also have lives, schedules, calendars and limits. For example, calling a month before your entire wedding is set in cement to tell the parish church that you wish the ceremony to take place on this time, date. Get angry if the answer is no. Someone else says yes of course hoping to gain a new member (carrott #1) and your parish is the bad “guy.”

Lying: Promising to attend church so the child you insist must be baptized can grow up and into the Christian faith and then forgetting the commitment you probably never intended to keep anyway. It’s insulting. The church gets used.

Godlike expectations for human beings: The church is expected to be like God—all loving all the time, forgetting that God is divine and has a more expansive heart than human beings.

Financial or emotional blackmail: The church suffers blows to budget and ego from blackmail, reducing or eliminating financial support because things aren’t going to your liking and indicating support will return when the place conforms. Or threatening abandonment, "I'll leave if......"

Annihilation by narcissism: Arriving late every Sunday and parading grandly all the way to the front row preferably during the sermon.

Wink, wink: Smile mightily as if happy with it all, then grumble behind closed doors or in parking lots.

Blaming: Authority and leadership are automatic enemies, scapegoated for anything. Here authority is confused with control and is demonized irrationally.

Hiding: refusal to respond to invitations to come talk about things because, you argue, you won’t get what you want so what’s the point. There is a point to reconciling conversation that is mutual and open and builds community whether any unfamiliar hymns are used or not.

Reactivity: One “bad” sermon, one “awful” hymn, even a significant loss of members in reaction to some change brings swift, silent, cowardly revenge: the evil eye, the rumor monger, the hit and run, the ample sigh, the sweet lie—anything but connection.

Chronic sourpuss: no explanation necessary.

This all is trivial and not abusive until you it becomes a way of life. Then it is like a constantly dripping faucet that makes rust, an ongoing corrosion that eats away at the system. Most church communities survive and get stronger but it still hurts and some communities become defensive, reactive, aggressive, a close inner group fortress full of fear. Abuses happen in closed systems.

The first three behaviors noted in the Bible are passive aggressive: lying, hiding and blaming. Adam and Eve are persuaded that Yahweh God has been deceptively restrictive on the advice of a snake, so they eat the forbidden fruit. When God comes to see how they’re doing they hide and cover their nakedness; then they lie about what has happened followed by passing blame around like a hot potato, the buck around ending it up on the snake’s slithery back for all time.
The Bible gets it.

God was innocent of aggressive tactics but the church is not. God, however, offers the one healing solution for both sides of the tug of war: love God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength and your neighbor as yourself. It's a great commandment. Helps you get a grip on who's in charge.

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I am grateful that most parishes I know well in the Episcopal church do not make this a way of life. I'm also grateful that I have learned not to take it personally, most of the time. And most of all I am grateful to know this truth: that there is nothing like a community of prayer and compassion, a community defined by this identity and ethic, that is in fact there for me at all times. It's called Church.